We had a visit today from Simon Curtis of Equity (National & Regional Organiser, Wales & South West England), who came to talk to us about what Equity has to offer us as students and soon to be young professionals, but also to answer any questions we had about the profession, drawing on his extensive experience not only as a union representative, but also a professional singer for many years.
I won't go into detail about what Equity does, the website speaks for itself. I will just quickly say what struck us most. We are all young(ish), unestablished singers, still students despite years of prior study, experience and dedication to our chosen art form. As such, we are all trying to make it into the professional world, and in order to progress along the road to this goal we are very eager to add points to our CV by learning and performing new repertoire. This often leads us to think of performing as an end in and of itself, and any money attached to it as a bonus, letting us put the performance in the 'professional' part of our CV. We are grateful for our opportunities, as we know the competition is fierce in our little world, and with arts funding being cut left, right and centre every paid job is a win.
Or is it? It is understandalbe that younger, less experienced singers will be paid less than seasoned professionals. Smaller companies pay less than the world class ones, fine. But at some point the numbers stop adding up. Examples were given in the meeting: a Requiem for £50, a six week rehearsal period for an all-inclusive fee of £300, some singers being paid £100 while the colleague standing next to them was receiving £900. With the explanation always being: 'but it's paid work'. Is it really?
I have nothing against the concept of pay-to-sing. At least it's what it says on the tin and you usually get some training in the process. I have attended many a training programme and paid for it, either fees or expenses, and felt that I got a lot out of it and that it was worth it. But this pretend-to-be-paid-for-singing is a bit demeaning, and I have caught myself thinking: with the amount of preparation I put into this concert, the travel money, and day spent rehearsing and performing, I can't even honestly say I've made minimum wage. The worst thing is, if I don't take the gig, there's a long queue of young desperate singers who will, and I end up slightly poorer sitting at home twiddling my thumbs and waiting for success to come a'knockin'.
When do you say 'enough'? When do you stop thinking you should be grateful for the opportunity and start thinking you deserve to be paid for your work? With so little of the properly paid work out there, there is always someone willing to undercut to get a foot in the door, so we all play this slightly crooked game. Equity can't solve this problem, neither can we really, we can just count it all out for ourselves and pick a moment when we can stop taking the little jobs and freebies, or start asking for more and risk losing those engagements. It's just interesting to stop and think that we are in fact highly trained skilled and talented people working for pittance.
And as a footnote: you'll notice that on the list of things I counted as going into a typical gig (prep, time, travel) I didn't list rent, tax, etc. Not to mention the money it took to train at college... or something towards a pension... children? Well, lets not get ahead of ourselves, but still, putting these little gigs into a real world perspective is, well, a bit depressing. But it's what we do, and in terms of performing, we do it gladly. But it'll have to stop eventually, either by people starting to pay us for the work we do, or by us finding real jobs...